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Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra says Ceres is faced with challenges but doing well
In his first-ever State of the City Address, Mayor Chris Vierra assured Ceres residents that the city is not "teetering on the edge of a doomed future or bankruptcy," but said real challenges exist.

"Despite the worst economic times we have seen in this land for the greater part of 100 years, despite the gridlock of Washington, despite the slash and burn edicts of Sacramento that have drained resources from our community and our sister communities, Ceres, through leadership, common sense, and care, has managed its resources wisely and has served its citizens," said Vierra.

Vierra spoke at a Friday lunch-hour address at the Ceres Community Center attended by a small crowd that included his wife, Kelly, and his parents, Vern and Sharon Vierra.

The mayor said Ceres faces high unemployment "and the state continues to bleed precious funds from our coffers." He also noted that state lawmakers continue to "pile on legal mandates that our city, and cities like ours, have to operate and pay for from shrinking budgets. Sacramento, as it reaps the fruit of its out-of-control spending, is trying to solve its financial problems on the backs of local governments, showing total disregard for cities like ours."

In response to shrinking revenues, the city of Ceres has survived through a leaner and more hard-working operation, he said.

"Our first job as local government is to provide our citizens with the basic services that our community counts on every day," said Vierra. "I am happy to say that we are doing that quite well. Ceres' fire and police operations have excellent service records, as do our public works and recreation departments. We rank among the top of communities similar to ours for efficiency and spending taxpayer dollars wisely and carefully. This is all being done in the wake of having lost some 25 percent of our revenues, city staff that has been reduced by nearly 20 percent, and the state, which has, without apology and in brazen fashion, taken our redevelopment funds. The loss of redevelopment funds seriously hamstrings our ability to improve our community image and achieve quality growth."

Vierra spent a lot of time addressing public safety, which consumes roughly 75 percent of the city's discretionary spending. He noted that "it was a good thing" that voters five years ago approved the half-cent sales tax in Measure H devoted to public safety. The passage has meant Ceres has avoided layoffs of police and fire when other cities are forced to do so.

"We have been able to increase the number of police officers and firefighters who keep our streets, property, and most importantly, all of us safe."

In addition, Ceres recently was awarded a COPS grant which funds an additional police officer and a SAFER grant funds six additional firefighters for two years.

Violent crime, robbery, and auto theft have decreased by 12 percent over the last year, said Vierra, and noted auto thefts have declined 38 percent.

"In keeping with Measure H, we added additional sworn staff to the Police Division, along with a crime analyst. Using Measure H funding, our Police Division improved its ability to solve crimes using newer, better technology. Our proactive high-tech (crimes) investigators were able to use this technology in investigations that resulted in the arrest and prosecution of six subjects for child pornography."

Ceres police, he said, continues to be successful in its efforts against illegal drugs, and to date, has seized nearly 14,000 pounds of marijuana and is proactively addressing drug related activity to clear thousands more pounds of marijuana from Ceres.

"Through the completion of several major investigations, the department has seen declines in violent crime."

"The Police Department is working at unprecedented levels of cooperation with other agencies to make communities safer - boundaries aren't as important as what it takes to make our community safe. They were successful in dismantling a notorious street gang that is linked to violent crimes and has been implicated in the trafficking of drugs. With the lead of Ceres police investigators and the help of local, state and federal agencies, this was the first investigation the Ceres Police Department has ever completed of this magnitude and it is one of the most successful gang investigations in Stanislaus County in recent history."

Ceres firefighters, noted the mayor, responded to over 4,000 calls for service in 2012, of which 3,000 were for medical rescue calls. Their responses saved lives and spared an estimated $7.5 million in property losses.

He noted that the fire safety inspection program at businesses have brought 99 percent of businesses in safety compliance.

Vierra gave an overview of projects approved by the city that will increase business and population. The council recently approved the West Landing Specific Plan which annexes 960 acres on the west side and includes areas for retail and commercial use, a business park, and various residential development options. West Landing is where Ceres expects a majority of growth to take place over the next 20 to 30 years.

The city also approved the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center which is currently being held up in court because of opposition to the tenant in a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Vierra wouldn't predict when the center becomes a reality but said the 300,000 square feet of space for retail and commercial use "will spur other retail development projects and result in many new employment opportunities in our community."

Citing the importance of sales tax revenues to any city, Vierra called for a "rigorous and realistic economic development plan that works to preserve businesses we already have and attract the businesses we want in order to create jobs and a truly healthy economy."

He said the council is diligent about streamlining the permitting process for businesses wishing to start up or relocate to Ceres.

"We have implemented a team approach with prospective businesses to ensure success and to minimize inconvenience, lag time, and bureaucracy," said Vierra. "My council colleagues and I recognize the difficult times we are in, and in order to compete with other communities just like ours, we must be responsive, assistive and have 'shovel ready' properties available. Leaner, smarter, faster and better is the new normal for how we do business in Ceres."

Vierra said he created a jobs committee, chaired by Councilman Mike Kline, that gives the city a better working relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and the Stanislaus Alliance for Workforce Development to "attract the kinds of businesses our community needs."

He said the city also must push for a full court press against blight "and create the right image for our community.

"The perception of Ceres does not reflect who we really are. But we can change that. We are working on a marketing plan for our city to better attract investment to our community. We need to back up this marketing effort by implementing concrete changes that beautify and revitalize our public spaces. We are developing volunteers who can help address blight, and moving forward, we will continue raising development standards for the city that reflect our positives and the city we would like to become."

Vierra said the council continues to work to advance a regional surface water project with the cities of Turlock and Modesto. Ceres will not be able to cost effectively rely on ground water as the city grows, mostly because of ever increasing state water quality regulations.

Signs of growth appear to be on the way, said Vierra, despite zero permits requested for new single-family residential last year and the current year. But he said one developer has submitted building plans for 60 single-family homes that could be built in the next year if there is demand.

Vierra gave an overview of some of the city's recent accomplishments, which includes:

• Completing the Whitmore/Highway 99 interchange;

• Completing a new metered water billing system.

• Adding a new $3 million sewer head works project to eliminate a major restriction in the capacity of the sewer system.

• Converting all city street lights to a 100 percent LED system to save $130,000 annually in electricity costs and $80,000 annually on maintenance costs.

• Re-timing and synchronizing 28 traffic signals on Hatch Road, Whitmore Avenue, and Mitchell Road to reduce stop delays.

• Completing over two miles of street overlays.

• Adding new segments of the Hatch Road Bike Path between Payne and Central avenues and Mitchell to Boothe roads.

• Solved a major flooding problem on 8th Street between Park and Lawrence.

• Served over 5,000 participants in city recreation programs, including record numbers in the summer aquatics and dance programs.

• Through the now defunct Ceres Redevelopment Agency, financed over $500,000 for the Barbour's Sewer Lift Station.

• Completed the Community Center parking lot.

• Adding new curbs, gutters, sidewalks and drainage in downtown.

• Implementing an online payment system that gives the citizens access to view and pay their utility bills.

Vierra said he is optimistic about the future while admitting "that things are still cloudy and unclear." The state is still waiting to see the outcome of Nov. 6 tax increasing propositions and because it's dealing with a multi-billion dollar budget deficit "leaves all of us with the nagging question of what drastic cut or program change will hit Ceres and her neighbors next."